This post is part of the Urban Affairs Forum* Engaged Scholarship Series. If you are doing Engaged Scholarship or teaching a class that asks students to do community engagement, contact Andrea Benjamin at email@example.com. We would love to highlight your work!
By Andrew Smith (University of Texas Rio Grande Valley)
When I arrived at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) and learned I had the freedom to incorporate service learning into my courses, I leapt at the opportunity to educate my students on the importance of community engagement and the hands-on application of the material we discussed in class, for multiple reasons. Service learning in undergrad allowed me to know my local community better, delve deeper into social science theories surrounding the issues related to the communities in which I served (education policy, the politics of disaster relief, etc.), and working as a team to accomplish important tasks in the broader community. Civic engagement is also a way to simultaneously counter the growing “polarization” of American politics and foster a sense of interconnectivity between the academy, students, and the community.
Planning and implementing the service-learning component has been one of the greatest challenges I have faced in my (short) professional career. In addition to issues of curriculum and coordinating with students and organizations, the class size of the Introduction to American Government course in which I instituted service learning is large: I am responsible for more than 50 students in one class. One semester down, I wish to share my insight into the strategies of implementing service learning in a large group setting – and ways in which service learning can be improved.
One piece of advice is to plan in advance every detail of the service-learning experience, such as contacting potential organizations and learning as much as possible about the organization’s goals and needs. When the group of participants is large, it is advisable to look at multiple organizations and allow students to choose their own organizations. This gives students a sense of responsibility and independence, which aids in their understanding of how their participation affects the community.
Volunteering without personal reflection undermines the purpose of getting active with one’s community, since any involvement in a community should include an understanding of the importance of involvement and the self-evaluation of one’s participation. In order for my students to have their hours count, they must respond to a reflection question on how the work they did that day positively impacted the organization and the community. This semester, I had a simple question: “reflect on your experience today.” The responses from the students mostly detail the specific project or assistance they performed that day, but many responses give personal reactions to what they saw or did, and some students noted how their volunteering gave them a feeling of personal confidence: one student wrote that their presentation on financial literacy with the South Texas Literacy Coalition greatly improved her public speaking ability, and another used their work at the Humanitarian Respite Center to improve their conversational Spanish.
In addition to the reflections, students must write a paper at the end of the term, describing not only what they did but also why what they did was important to the community. I also ask my students to tie in the topics we learned in class. For example, if a student volunteered with a voter education organization, the student could discuss the organization in the context of theories of election interest group participation. Even non-political engagement can be used to link theory and practice: students who worked at the local animal shelter can discuss how the organization was affected by changes in the municipal budget. In these ways, I use service learning to synthesize theories of the political process, service to others, and a greater understanding of their membership in a community.
The hours students should volunteer depends on the conditions of the class, the needs of organizations, and the responsibilities students have outside of the class. I work at a Hispanic-serving institution, and many of my students must work at least one job in order to afford school. Consequently, it is not feasible to expect them to volunteer a lot of hours. I had students volunteer at least 4 hours per month, and the informal feedback I have received indicates that even working students find this number achievable.
Service learning has been a positive experience for my students and myself, but it is a process which is always evolving. I listen to my students’ feedback and make adjustments as needed, and I always try to be patient with the chaos that can sometimes emerge when coordinating with so many people. One simple quote from a student sums up the experience we should hope for: “I really liked the volunteering hours spent and I will for sure go back.”
As a Tennessee native, Dr. Andrew Smith’s inclination toward service lives up to his state’s motto: “The Volunteer State”. A lecturer of political science at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Dr. Smith came to the Valley two years ago and has fallen in love with the students, the culture, and the food. His academic interests include judicial politics, constitutional law, and race & politics. If you would like to learn more about Dr. Smith’s service learning courses, or anything else, feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @ahsmith923.
*The Urban Affairs Forum is presented by Urban Affairs Review, a a peer-reviewed, bi-monthly journal focused on questions of politics, governance, and public policy specifically as they relate to cities and/or their regions.